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Searching for Bobby Fischer: Are online games hoax or real thing?

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pawn hog. That pretty much sums up how Carnegie Mellon University professor Danny Sleator was feeling about British chess grandmaster Nigel Short yesterday.

Short disclosed over the weekend that he believes his anonymous opponent in 50 games played online through Sleator's company, Internet Chess Club, was reclusive American chess legend Bobby Fischer.

"To me, they are what an undiscovered Mozart symphony would be to a music lover," Short wrote of the games.

Unfortunately for chess devotees, Short said he kept no record of the moves, ensuring no one else will be able to appreciate Fischer's genius -- if it is indeed Fischer.

"It's frustrating," Sleator said. "He's hoarding it. He's not letting us hear the Mozart symphony."

Sleator said there were two possible reasons why Short would not record the games. One is that he didn't know how to do so using Internet Chess Club's software.

"Two is he doesn't want to publish the games because that would open the biggest possibility of proving this was a hoax, which would reflect badly on him," Sleator said.

By analyzing the moves, he said, it could be determined whether a computer was playing against Short instead of a human being.

"Now that's lost to us."

Sleator said there was no way he could determine the identity of Short's opponent. Both players logged on to the Web site as guests. Short was invited to do so by a player who used a code word that had been given to him earlier by an intermediary.

In theory, if Fischer had used a member's computer to play his games, that person could be identified -- something Sleator has not tried to do. But even if it turned out that a member's computer was used to play against Short, it would be up to the member to verify Fischer's identity.

If Short's hunch is accurate, it would mark the first time the public has heard from Fischer since 1992, when he went underground after winning a rematch against Russian Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia. Before that, Fischer beat Spassky in 1972 before vanishing for the next 20 years.

"The attraction is that by disappearing from the chess world at the height of his reign as world champion, he created this gigantic vacuum," Sleator explained.

"I mean, he was a legend, right? But then he just was gone, and that created this huge vacuum of information. What is this guy doing? That's why there's all this excitement about it."

With the Internet Chess Club, Fischer would have the ability both to play anonymously and to find opponents of his caliber. There are often a number of the world's 600 or so grandmasters logged on to the site at any given time.

"He could play them without having to reveal where he is and get competition at his level," Sleator said. "And it would also allow him to find out if he's still sharp."

Short said he deduced Fischer's identity by his brilliant play and the knowledge of chess trivia he displayed as the two chatted over the Internet.

The one question Short never asked: Are you Bobby Fischer?

Short's news sent chess circles buzzing. In the 24 hours since an article he wrote about his encounters appeared Sunday in a London newspaper, Sleator has been besieged by fans wanting to know what moves Fischer made.

"It's been talked about in my club incessantly since the report came out," Sleator said. "It's been talked about prior to that, too."

For the last year, rumors have persisted that Fischer has been playing anonymously on the Web site from an unknown location. Real or fake? No one can say, except perhaps Nigel Short.

It's known that a handful of Internet Chess Club users are Fischer pretenders. There's even one who goes by the handle Blobby Fissure. As Sleator sees it, the current hullabaloo could produce even more copycats.

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